How Donaldson will address calf injuries

February 24th, 2021

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Last season marked the first time in 's career in which he was unable to appear in the playoffs for his team. It's not a feeling he's eager to relive.

"It was tough to watch the guys," he said.

At 35, Donaldson has had to come to terms with the fact that he can no longer expect himself to be the grind-it-out, play-through-things guy to push through issues in the name of staying on the field. Not if he wants to be there when the games matter most for the Twins, and not if he wants to make sure his calves will allow for a productive tenure with Minnesota as his age continues to creep up.

So, after his recurring calf issues held him to 28 games last season, Donaldson enters camp ahead of the 2021 season knowing that he'll have to approach things differently. Things still look similar to the eye: He still moves well, his glove is sure, and his swing mechanics and plate discipline strong as he took live batting practice against Griffin Jax and Devin Smeltzer.

But once games start, the focus could turn more to the big picture and the marathon of the season.

"I'm understanding that in order for me to be out there and help our team throughout the season, that there's going to have to be some adjustments made," Donaldson said.

The third baseman and former MVP said it took him a month following the 2020 season to recover from the calf issues that flared up again at the end of September and kept him out of the American League Wild Card Series. There isn't one solution to this, and in addition to working with the training staff to maintain strength and mobility in the legs, there has also been an added focus on Donaldson's running mechanics and easing into his usage in games.

It hasn't been easy for Donaldson to change up his running form this deep into his career, but his gait has been too reliant on using his feet and calves to drive himself forward, he says. He's instead focused much more on trying to generate that acceleration using hip drive. He felt good about his progress in 2020, and hopes that the challenges of ramping up more quickly for games due to COVID considerations last season made for a "fluke" hindrance to his progress.

"It’s been something that I’ve put a lot of time and energy into, and I’m going to continue to do that," Donaldson said.

The other part might be tougher for him, but it's something he accepts: His usage will be limited, both at the start of Spring Training and in the early part of the regular season. Manager Rocco Baldelli noted during the offseason that easing Donaldson into action will help him build up more gradually for the season and, hopefully, be healthier for the more important September stretch run and postseason.

According to Donaldson, he and Baldelli had these conversations last season, too, but much of those plans went out the window when the season was shortened from 162 games to 60, increasing the importance of each game and leading the Twins to "try to push it," Donaldson said. That shouldn't be an issue this year -- especially with a capable offensive backup in Luis Arraez pushing for playing time at several positions.

"I'm not going to be playing in every single game early on, but to kind of build into getting game-ready," Donaldson said. "There is kind of a getting broken-in effect as getting into baseball shape, because there is a lot of sitting down, there is a lot of going from sitting and not doing anything to full-speed right away. Your body has to get acclimated to that."

That acclimation will be all the more important in the face of added pressure from the White Sox -- and the fact that the Twins were 19-9 when Donaldson played last year, and 17-17 when he didn't (including the playoffs). The Twins aren't 100 percent sure of what exactly it'll look like yet -- but they know it's important they figure it out.

"I don’t think it makes sense to have a plan set in stone at this point, but we certainly will, and we certainly have made some inroads as far as exactly what we’re going to be doing once these games start in the spring and when the season starts," Baldelli said. "We definitely have some very good ideas that will help. Josh is on board with everything that we’re talking about."